November 26, 2004

My workstation OS: Debian

Author: KIVILCIM Hindistan

What do you want from a desktop operating system? Of course programs for everyday use (a Web browser, office tools, games, etc.), but those programs are not the main criteria, especially with GNU/Linux, since you can use almost any Linux application easily on your distribution of choice. The real criteria are stability, package management, hardware compatibility, and the people behind the software, the community. For its superiority in those areas, I made Debian my workstation OS.

Debian GNU/Linux is a bit different from other Linuxes, in that it does not have point releases, such as Red Hat 7.0, 7.1, and 7.2. Instead, at any given time, Debian has three versions with different content: stable, testing, and unstable. (Debian versions are named after characters in the movie "Toy Story," and the three versions are called Woody, Sarge, and Sid, respectively. Woody is officially known as Debian 3.0.) Any program that will be published in the next version is compiled, documented, packaged, and put into the unstable distribution. As the name implies, the unstable branch includes the packages that are not tested much and may have problems. The testing distribution has tested programs that generally do not cause problems, but which still need time to mature. When the testing has gone on long enough the package becomes part of the stable distribution.

The Debian developers are rigid on this policy, which results in a stable, well-tested operating system. This is not talking about "total quality assurance," this is total quality in action.

Because the stable distribution has thoroughly tested software, it won't offer the latest versions of your favourite packages, but rather the most stable ones. Debian 3.0 was released in mid-2002, and 4.0 isn't expected until early next year. But if the latest version of that software has any vital functions, you'll probably find it in, which is a repository of new versions of packages compiled with the stable libraries, for dire needs. Alternatively, you can install the unstable version of the software into your stable distribution. Even you upgrade to the whole unstable version, you won't have problems compiling the latest version of your favourite software.

A volunteer organisation like Debian has neither deadlines to push, nor marketing budgets that enforce a new distro or version be released every year. If a package has problems, you wait (or even help) and it becomes better. I've been using Debian unstable for two and a half years, and I can assure you that you'll not have many problems, compared to other supposedly stable operating systems.

Packaging system and software archives

Installing new applications and configuring old ones in Debian GNU/Linux is a breeze. You do not have to worry about dependencies, library problems, or even former configuration files. Debian Package Management System handles all these for you. Most of the time all you need to do is run Debian's Advanced Package Tool (APT) with the command apt-get install packagename. APT searches
Debian mirrors, which are HTTP and FTP servers around the world that hold package files for Debian distros. Debian will look at the mirrors, compare the version of the package it finds there with your current one, check for dependencies, add them to the list of files to be downloaded, if any are needed, download them all, and begin installing them.

You can even upgrade your whole operating system with apt-get upgrade. Going from from Debian Woody (stable) to Sid (unstable) is as easy as a regular apt-get install. This is exceptional functionality.

Maybe the most important feature of Debian Package Management System is that it does not look at file dependencies, but package dependencies, unlike most other systems. This works far better than keeping track of thousands of files.

If you are terrified of the command prompt and consider a good operating system one where you never need to type any system command, you can update your packages using the GUI front end Synaptic, which maintains information about thousands of packages, with detailed data about what that software does or what its capabilities are.

The merits of Debian Package Management System are longer that I can explain here, but let me note that, in the last few years, APT has been adopted by Fedora, SUSE, Slackware, and many other distributions (though not as their primary package management tool). This says a lot about the capability and quality of this system.

As for the range of software packages, the unstable distro includes almost 16,000 packages, ranging from science to network management, games to statistics software, all configured and packaged for Debian users, with dependencies and other prerequisites arranged. It is overwhelming to have so much software to chose from, especially when it is all only an apt-get command away.

Hardware compatibility

Debian has a large, volunteer developer base. While many other Linux distributions may run on i386, Macintosh, or Sun platforms, Debian can run on a wide range of CPUs, from DEC Alpha to IBM PowerPC to ARM to Amiga.

The kernel included in Debian versions is patched and maintained for maximum compatibility. If you have a problem with a given device, and if the hardware is not too exotic, you'll probably see by searching on the Internet that some Debian user already has a workaround for your problem.

One area where Debian lags behind other distributions is in the initial install. Debian Woody has a text-based installation that can easily scare off newcomers, and which may not autodetect new graphics cards. Both of these issues are attended to in the testing version, Debian 4.0 (Sarge). But after the system is set up and running, you most probably won't need any hands-on help.


As far as I know, Debian is one of only two distributions (even operating systems) with a social contract (Gentoo is the other). All Debian developers agree to this contract, which covers important concepts such as being %100 free, giving back to the free software community, promising not to hide problems, stating the first priorities as the users and free software, and more. It is more contract than money can buy.

The attitude behind the social contract shows how dedicated the people who work on Debian are. Apart from thousands working on the really boring jobs of maintaining packages, checking dependencies, compiling from source, cleaning the glitches, and doing this again and again, there are lots of IRC channels, mailing lists, and Web sites (among them Debian Planet, Debian Help, and Debian Blogs), all of them crawling with experienced Debian users. If you have a problem, someone will help you solve it.

Debian GNU/Linux is one of the most stable and easy-to-maintain operating systems available, free or non-free. If you have never looked under the hood of GNU/Linux before, you may need a few help calls or to do a bit reading to get started, but it's worth it. Expect a system with no forced reboots, no unpredicted system crashes, and no program installation conflicts when you're done installing it. After your first month with Debian, you'll wonder what kept you from apt-getting yourself to Debian all this time.

KIVILCIM Hindistan is a freelance writer in Istanbul, Turkey, who covers GNU/Linux, IT security, and the Internet.

What's your desktop OS of choice? Write an article of less than 1,000 words telling us what you use and why. If we publish it, we'll pay you $200. So far, we've heard from fans of FreeBSD, Mepis Linux, and Debian. Coming up next week: Xandros.


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